Rehman is a member of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party and was close to Benazir Bhutto, the late prime minister. She is also one of Pakistan’s few vocal proponents of tolerance.
Rehman will replace Husain Haqqani, who resigned Tuesday night after allegations that he devised a confidential memo that asked for Washington’s help to rein in Pakistan’s military and promised reforms that would please the United States.
The memo was written after the U.S. raid on a Pakistani compound in May that killed Osama bin Laden and dealt a blow to the already shaky trust between Washington and Islamabad.
Haqqani denied involvement in the memo but said he would step down to help calm a swelling scandal that was imperiling Pakistan’s weak civilian government and deepening the civil-military split.
The ambassadorial post is crucial to Pakistan and the United States, mutually suspicious allies whose relationship has nose-dived this year.
The United States has given billions of dollars in civilian and military aid to Pakistan, whose cooperation is key to the war in Afghanistan. But the United States is viewed as a mercurial bully in Pakistan, particularly by the military, which largely directs foreign and security policy.
The military regarded Haqqani as an untrustworthy intimate of the Americans and the unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari.
“I look forward to pushing Pakistan’s case in Washington and hope to build on convergences for both countries,” Rehman said in an interview. “We’re in a very difficult time, and I think it’s important to attempt to normalize and stabilize our relations.”
Human rights activists lauded Rehman’s appointment. As a member of parliament, she has backed several women’s rights bills. Early this year, she became a target of militant Islamists after championing changes to Pakistan’s strict anti-blasphemy laws. Two other senior ruling-party figures were assassinated by extremists after espousing similar views.
Rehman served as Pakistan’s federal information minister from 2008 to 2009, when she resigned in protest over government curbs on television stations whose coverage had been critical of the Zardari administration.
Rehman, a graduate of Smith College in Massachusetts, heads a think tank called the Jinnah Institute, which promotes progressivism and dialogue with India, Pakistan’s arch-foe. In August, the institute published a report on the Afghan war endgame.
The report, co-written with the U.S. Institute of Peace, summarized the views of Pakistan’s “foreign policy elite,” including retired generals and current politicians, on Pakistan’s objectives for Afghanistan. Those included a stabile and Pakistan-friendly government and an Indian presence limited to development.
“This is a middle-of-the-road approach, someone they can agree on,” said analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, the author of a book on the Pakistani military.
Rehman declined to comment directly on how she would handle the power struggle between Pakistan’s civilian government and its military, which has ruled the nation for about half its existence.
“It’s important for us to all be on one page considering strategic goals,” she said. “I don’t think there is and can be any divide on that.”